For Cecil B. DeMille there was no such thing as a regular feature film…it always had to be a spectacle.
Circus films were a dime a dozen in the 1930s, but none of them really captured that thrill of seeing a circus in person. A circus was meant to be a spectacle, and the circus itself had to take the center ring in a film; it couldn’t be relegated to merely a background setting.
Cecil B. DeMille knew all this, and he also knew that if he wanted to see a honest-to-goodness tribute to the American circus he would have to make the film himself.
As early as 1949, DeMille started the wheels of production spinning. He spent over a year touring with Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus, photographing the best acts in the business and discovering ways to transport that thrill of a real circus onto the big screen. What resulted was indeed The Greatest Show on Earth, a spectacle beyond all spectacles. This film really packs a punch and captures everything audiences love about the circus – daring acts on the flying trapeze, elephants on parade, glittering costumes, the smoky atmosphere within the tent, the heroic natures of the stars of the rings, even the drama of the circus people themselves.
This drama centers around Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), manager of the Ringling Brothers circus. He has just engaged The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a popular trapeze artist, to ensure a full profitable season, even though it means moving his girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton), another trapeze artist, from her hard-won center ring. Sebastian and Holly begin a playful, but dangerous, one-upmanship duel in the ring until the inevitable accident stops the show.
James Stewart also has a big part as a former doctor now in hiding from the police for a mercy killing several years back. To keep his identity a secret he never removes his makeup as Buttons the Clown. It is not until Brad’s life is endangered in a massive train wreck that Buttons must reveal his true profession.
Gloria Grahame, Lyle Bettger, Dorothy Lamour, and Henry Wilcoxon make up the rest of the cast, in addition to 85 acts from the Ringling Brothers circus including aerialist Antionette Concello, little person Cucciola, and veteran clowns Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs. All of the scenes within the tent were filmed at Ringling Brothers’ winter home in Sarasota, or live during one of their performances. Obviously, the circus pros had no issues doing the stunts, but what was most impressive was how well Cornel Wilde (who had a fear of heights) and Betty Hutton performed on the trapeze. It took them months to learn their technique and it clearly showed. Had their Hollywood careers fizzled, they could have easily joined up with a circus.
When The Greatest Show on Earth premiered its box-office receipts were higher than even The Great Sebastian could soar, with kids of all ages packing the theaters in droves. It’s no wonder, too…..Cecil B. DeMille paralleled the real Ringling Brothers circus and gave audiences one great moment after another to behold in this star-studded spectacle.
Fredric Frank and Barre Lyndon penned a cotton-candy script with a straightforward plot line because, after all, who comes to a circus to be engrossed in deep drama? We want to have fun, ooh and aah at some thrilling acts, and see plenty of spangles and sawdust.
So next time you’re itching to go to the circus, get yourself some popcorn, and sit back and enjoy The Greatest Show on Earth.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.” This article originally ran last year and is being republished as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations.